Friday, June 30, 2006
When headlines collapse
This ambiguous headline about trouble on the set of the latest Rob Schneider movie baffles Defamer, an L.A. gossip site:

Rob Schneider OK after movie set collapse

It's the sort of double meaning that also hurts these headlines:
  • Commander relieved after gondola crash
  • Prostitutes appeal to pope
  • Judges appear more lenient on crack cocaine (an example from The Lower Case at Columbia Journalism Review)
If a headline conveys multiple meanings, you can bet on the readers to take it the wrong way.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:36 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
From copy editor to features editor
The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., has named Thad Ogburn as features editor. He got his start at the N&O on the copy desk after a stint as a reporter in Jacksonville, N.C., and went on to lead the North Raleigh News edition and the paper's education coverage. Thad was also a key player in the formative years of the American Copy Editors Society.

Congratulations to Thad. Not only is this a good move for the N&O, it's also a heartening sign to copy editors who wonder whether there's life beyond the desk.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:23 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Draco's legacy
I dropped in on Rush Limbaugh's radio show this week, hoping he would talk about his latest brush with the law. Instead, he was discussing flag burning and The New York Times — the standard fare. Limbaugh, however, did use one of my favorite words: draconian. Limbaugh used the adjective to describe a campaign-finance law in Vermont that placed limits on spending and contributions.

"Draconian," as defined by my Dashboard dictionary, means "excessively harsh and severe." The adjective is usually applied to "laws" and similar nouns. "Draconian" comes from Draco, a lawgiver of ancient Greece known for recommending tough, even cruel, penalties. (His work was revised significantly by Solon, the man whose name is to blame for modern headlines such as "Solons mull plan.") Merriam-Webster mentions Draco in its definition: "of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him."

Here are some "draconian" things in recent news stories:
  • The Kalamazoo Gazette in Michigan uses the word to describe fees assessed for driving offenses. The headline writer picked up on that idea: "Draconian fees make lawbreakers of the poor."
  • A medical Web site in Australia uses the word to describe President Bush's stand on stem-cell research.
  • A Turkish news service calls a plan to impose fees on demonstrations Draconian.
Because of its pejorative and highly subjective nature, "draconian" is a word to be used cautiously. In news stories, it may reflect a bias by the reporter or headline writer. What may be excessively harsh to one person may not be to another. In editorials and other opinion writing, it's often the perfect word to use, however. It's also a good one for everyday conversation, maybe because it's simply fun to say.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:28 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
US Weekly does a 180
US Weekly understands its audience: Do these readers want to know about Africa's struggles with disease, poverty and neglect, as discussed by Angelina Jolie on "Anderson Cooper 360" last week? Of course not. Do they want to know about Brad and babies? Of course!

So the celebrity magazine condenses the interview down to its gossipy core. This editing job requires liberal use of the ellipsis, some brackets and a whole lot of chopping. The result removes any mention of the issues that Jolie wanted to talk about. The exclamation mark on the headline is the capper.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:49 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Carolina consolidation
With the McClatchy's purchase of Knight Ridder a done deal, newspapers affected by the change are weighing in on what it means to them and their readers. Newsrooms have been wondering, too.

It's particularly interesting in North Carolina and South Carolina (not North and South Carolina, as an editor at the Greensboro paper once told the copy desk). The region is dotted with KR and McClatchy papers. Here's how some of them are covering the transition:
  • The Charlotte Observer says readers won't see a significant difference. Its story quotes an op-ed columnist for the paper who's worried that the deal will do nothing to eliminate what he sees as bias in news coverage. (Note: Registration may be required to read the Charlotte story and the accompanying column by its publisher.)
  • The News & Observer of Raleigh sees collaboration with Charlotte on specialty publications. The N&O story also touches on sharing coverage of sports and coordinating circulation along the coast.
  • The State newspaper in Columbia predicts an increase in regional stories. The story also mentions how the change will require changes to the design of front pages and newsracks, which sport the Knight Ridder logo.
  • The Web site of the Rock Hill Herald goes with this headline: "Carolina papers grow stronger." The story quotes Bill Rogers of the S.C. Press Association, who says the biggest change will come in advertising, not news.
None of the stories mentions copy editors or page designers, leading one to believe that they won't be consolidated out of a job.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:04 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, June 25, 2006
To the letter
Ted Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer, writes today on the editing of letters to the editor. The letter in question is one from Richard Burr, one of North Carolina's two GOP senators. Burr was annoyed that the N&O editorial department had condensed his response to a recent N&O editorial on food-labeling legislation he's sponsoring — so annoyed that he took out a full-page ad in the paper with his full letter.

Like most papers, the N&O limits the length of letters to the editor. In the interest of saving space and allowing as many voices into the letters columns as possible, the N&O puts a 200-word cap on letters. (It used to be 250 words until recently.) And like most papers, the note soliciting letters points out that letters will be edited, presumably for style, punctuation, grammar and other fundamental issues as well as for length. On occasion, the paper will publish longer letters, usually with a note that the 200-word limit has been waived to allow a fuller response from a person mentioned in a story or editorial.

The N&O word limit is typical. It's fair to ask people to express their views quickly and coherently. (As sports radio host Jim Rome says: "Have a take. Don't suck, or you will get run.") Here's what other papers allow:

  • The News & Record in Greensboro, like the N&O, has a 200-word limit. Unlike the N&O, it also posts the letters online in a format that allows others to comment, blog-style.
  • The Charlotte Observer's limit is 150 words. Some of the letters are only a sentence or two.
  • The New York Times has a limit of 150 words. The paper offers its rationale and other tips to readers in this column.
  • The Washington Post doesn't have a cap, but it does say that letters are "subject to abridgement."
The editing of letters to the editor for space reasons is as necessary and inevitable as the editing of news stories. In the finite world of print, the numbers of words and paragraphs (among other elements) will not match the size of the page without some give and take.

In each case, thoughtful editors must take care to ensure that nothing vital to the meaning of the writing is lost. Editors who fail to do that open themselves to the possibility of accusations of chicanery.

That was the heart of Burr's complaint, even though Vaden, the public editor, found no indication of bias. Perhaps a better option for the N&O in that situation would have been to reject the letter with an encouraging note to the senator to "revise and resubmit" within an agreed length, with the caveat that the paper still reserved the right to do some editing.

UPDATE: Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News continues the conversation on this topic at her blog, A Capital Idea.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:23 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Seeing double
Yes, that is the same story about the Lejeune Marine on facing pages in The News & Observer. How does this happen? Because of zoning: the reshuffling of news (and advertising) based on location, typically by county.

As stories bounce around between editions during the course of an evening of desk work, some get into the paper twice — or not at all. Such mistakes are probably baffling to readers, who assume that the newspaper is the same whether they buy it on the Outer Banks or in downtown Raleigh.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:53 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, June 23, 2006
Devilish headline in St. Pete
The St. Petersburg Times briefly had a story on its site today with this attention-grabbing headline:

Rove, Satan plot GOP fall campaign strategy

The Onion-like story went on to describe a news conference by the president's right-hand man, Karl Rove. St. Pete has taken the story off its site, but some of it is preserved here. Alas, it's all apparently just a badly labeled bit of satire.

UPDATE: St. Pete explains what happened here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:33 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Death becomes them
USA Today takes us to a conference of obituary writers. The story is (where else?) on the paper's Life front today.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:19 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Blogs, polls and the Battle of the Bulge
For all the talk about rise of blogs and the demise of the Mainstream Media, there's really no contest in original reporting, writing and editing. The MSM is still far ahead, and many blogs thrive only thanks to links to established news sites. Most media-oriented blogs (including this one) focus on analysis and commentary, not reportage. This post at Talking Points Memo, however, shows that bloggers who dig where the MSM do not can strike gold, or at least silver.

Liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall decided to look into the recent claim by the White House regarding polls during World War II and the Iraq war. Press secretary Tony Snow asserted that warfare by survey was a bad idea and that if the United States had fought the Battle of the Bulge that way, the Allies may not have prevailed. Snow suggested that it was good that public opinion research didn't exist then as it does now.

Marshall and a history professor at the University of Chicago did some digging and found that indeed such survey research was done during World War II, at least internally, for FDR. Marshall wrote about the findings and even posted a fever chart from the time that traces U.S. opinion on the war. To his credit, Marshall doesn't use this nugget to say "gotcha" to Snow, but to illustrate a broader point. It's also an interesting historical footnote for those of us into such things.

The Huffington Post, however, did use Marshall's blog as a "gotcha," with an italic-laced headline: "Tony Snow Caught Making False Claims Again: Polls Were Taken During Battle of the Bulge." Some sites just can't resist the urge.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:23 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
The NYT's byline king
Metro reporter Sewell Chan has his name on 422 stories in The New York Times in the past 12 months. Quantity isn't everything, but that's impressive. Copy editors will like Chan's attention to detail, as described in this article.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:12 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Cool front pages
The Freedom Forum's daily collection of front pages allows for some interesting comparisions on the play of a big story. Here in the Triangle, the Carolina Hurricanes are the big story today. They won the Stanley Cup on Monday night, beating Edmonton 3-1 in an exciting Game 7. Here's how the story played in various papers:


The News & Observer of Raleigh devoted the bulk of its front page to the win, with promos to other stories strung along the bottom. The "jubilation" image is a given: Rod Brind'Amour hoisting the Cup in triumph. Some may find fault with the "homer" headline and the exclamation mark, but on occasions like this, why not allow the newspaper to become part of the community and join in the cheers? The drophead highlights the significance of the event and serves to justify the story play: This is the first major championship by a professional team in North Carolina, and it will likely be the only one — until the Canes win another or the state lands a MLB team.
The News & Record in Greensboro also gave prominent play to the Canes' win. After moving from Hartford, the team played its first seasons in Greensboro while an arena was under construction in Raleigh. Carolina still has fans in there, as reflected in the secondary image. (News & Record editor John Robinson discusses the paper's thinking on this story here.) The News & Record's competitors in Winston-Salem used a similar fan-based feel, as did The Charlotte Observer. In the eastern part of the state, the Greenville paper relegated the game to a small promo — a bit of a surprise given the city's relative proximity to the Triangle.


Hockey coverage was more subdued in South Carolina and points beyond. The Myrtle Beach and Columbia papers made mention of the game in promos at the top of their pages. The Greenville News and a few others ignored the game, as did The Augusta Chronicle, just across the state line. Farther south, the Tampa and St. Petersburg papers gave the Canes a nod in the promos. (The previous Cup winners were the Tampa Bay Lightning.)


Fans in the North and other hockey havens probably aren't thrilled that North Carolina has the Cup for the next year, but many of them gave the Canes their due. The Hartford Courant, apparently shedding any bitterness about losing the team to the South, used a standalone photo as its display image. The Detroit Free-Press in "Hockeytown" recognized the victory on its front, and The New York Times offered a text-only promo at the bottom of the page. The news hit hardest in the Great White North, where the puck rules and the Cup is seen as a distinctly Canadian artifact. The Toronto paper went with a classic dejection photo and ran a headline playing to the national pride: "The Cup eludes Canada yet again."

Maybe next year.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:11 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, June 19, 2006
Charleston vs. Charlotte
This ad at at a journalism job site shows how similar names of cities are easily confused. Here's the difference:
  • Charleston, S.C., is a coastal city known for its lovely architecture and Southern charm. The first shots of the Civil War were fired there.
  • Charlotte, N.C., is a landlocked city known as a center of banking and finance. It's where the Carolina Panthers play their home football games.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:46 PM | Permalink | 6 comments
'Inconvenient' numbers
This headline from The Drudge Report is a classic example of twisting numbers to create a false impression. The reader is led to believe that "An Inconvenient Truth" is melting down at the box office, but a click on the link and a close look at the numbers show otherwise:
  • It's true that box office was down for "An Inconvenient Truth" on Sunday, which seems to be the point of the Drudge headline. But so were the numbers for nearly every other movie. (Maybe this has something to do with Father's Day.)
  • It's true that "An Inconvenient Truth" came in 12th on the list, pulling in $1.75 million for the weekend. In raw totals, it's dwarfed by "Cars" and "Nacho Libre." But look at the per-screen average, which is a better barometer of whether people are filling theaters for a movie. Using that, "Truth" beat "A Prairie Home Companion," "The Break-Up," the "Garfield" sequel and the latest X-Men movie, among others.
"An Inconvenient Truth" even gave "The Lake House" a run for its money. If Al Gore's glorified PowerPoint presentation can compete with a Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves romance at the box office, he's doing pretty well.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:49 AM | Permalink | 4 comments
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Getting mugged
"Is there a mug with that?" is a frequently asked question in newsrooms. Page designers are familiar with creating layouts with faces of newsmakers, and copy editors are accustomed to writing captions (also known as cutlines) for them. But not all readers like to see these faces in their daily paper.

Some readers in the Triangle are upset with The News & Observer for publishing a photo of a Duke lacrosse player in a recent story. Fred Krom is not one of the players charged in that well-publicized rape investigation, but the DA in the case wants information from him and other people. Krom's attorneys call the request a "fishing expedition."

The objection from readers, many of whom already are angry at the paper for its coverage of the lacrosse team, say that running Krom's photo implies guilt. To them, it's another example of bias. Other N&O readers raised similar concerns during the 2004 campaign, when supporters of John Kerry objected to a frequently used file photo that they said made their candidate's face look like a withered tree trunk.

In both cases, the readers were reading more into the mugs than was intended, but their complaints do raise questions about how and why newspaper editors (as well as editors in other media) frequently run small images of people's faces with stories.

The faces of news

In this case, the N&O ran what appears to be a handout photo of Krom, probably from the media guide published by Duke's athletics department. Such "mug shots" appear frequently in American newspapers; the idea is to let readers see what people in the news look like. It's a standard and accepted practice in the profession. In this case, to run such a photo is not to pass judgment on Krom or on the legal issues discussed in the accompanying story.

It gets trickier when editors have the choice to run a true "mug shot" — the booking photograph made when a person is arrested or charged. Such images tend to be unflattering, even freaky, as the collection of mugs on The Smoking Gun illustrates. They serve the same function as the "perp walk" on TV news: They appeal to our uneasy fascination with the criminal. And in some cases, we even take some joy in the fact that the suspect has met justice. Knowing this, people such as Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh have literally put the best face possible on their recent mug shots by smiling as if they were posing for a family snapshot. Conversely, Time magazine made O.J. Simpson's mug shot even more ominous by darkening the frame around his face for an infamous 1994 cover image.

The Redick case

Schadenfreude was probably in play in another legal matter involving a Duke athlete, J.J. Redick. The former Blue Devil is one of those players who stirred strong emotions among basketball fans. Duke fans love him; fans of most other teams hate him. There is no middle ground.

The arrest of Redick on DWI charges also created the need for an editorial decision: publish the "official" photo of Redick or the police "mug shot." The grainy photo shows a bleary-eyed Redick looking out of sorts.

The TV station that broke the story used the booking photo on its Web site, as did ESPN. The N&O used the Duke-issued "glamour shot" photo on its site, and then switched to the booking photo later in the day. It also used the booking photo in the newspaper. Ted Vaden, the newspaper's public editor, said he had received no complaints about the N&O's use of the unflattering image of Redick.


Editors should take care in the selection of what mugs are used and how they are used. What's important is that the image be representative of the person: Let's not pick a photo that captures a person in an awkward moment or that makes it difficult to discern to recongize the subject. As any editor who has looked through a collection of photos from a news conference would attest, still photography makes it easy to make anyone look foolish. As with everything journalists do, it helps to anticipate the reaction from readers.

In the crime stories, use of booking photos is often justified. In Redick's case, the image contributes to the storytelling. The photo, which portrays his condition at the time of his arrest, is news in and of itself. But it's important for editors not to revel in such photos or to pander to their readers by playing them too large or prominently.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:39 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, June 16, 2006
A not-so-small mistake
This headline in the North Raleigh News makes a common error: throwing a second "i" into what should be "minuscule." The Web version of the story corrects the problem.

The word, meaning "tiny" or "very small," comes from French and Latin. It is tempting to write "mini" as the first four letters because of that definition. According to this site, some dictionaries are open to the "mini" spelling, and the dictionary on my computer recognizes the "mini" version as a non-standard spelling.

The AP Stylebook, however, prefers the traditional spelling. So do I.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:11 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
A deadly style point
The public editor at the Orlando Sentinel has an interesting column on "homicides" and "murders," and how a style rule tripped up the paper, requiring a correction.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:05 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 15, 2006
We're not the only ones who notice
In this letter to the editor, a library worker bemoans the misspelling of "pedestrians" on a sign. Her concern: What message does this send to freshmen on campus for orientation?

The letter is among the "most popular articles" on The Daily Tar Heel site.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:59 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Improper credit

Here's an especially unfortunate error: a credit line that misspells the name of the paper. It makes me feel sorry for the writer, who probably had nothing to do with it.

Granted, this example comes from an "advertorial" section, but those need editing like anything else. A quick spell-check would have flagged this mistake.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:26 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Tracking the news in (almost) real time
Editors spend a great deal of thought trying to figure out what their readers want. For newspapers, it's often hard to know what stories were read and which were ignored.

The "most popular" and "most e-mailed" lists on Web sites give some indication of what readers in that medium want. Earlier this year, the New York Times added a "most blogged" list of stories. Now the BBC is taking that idea to the next level. This part of the BBC site shows the most popular stories through the filters of time and geography.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:22 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
First post: Welcome to The Desk
Welcome to The Desk, a blog for anyone interested in editing.

To get us started, copy editor Pam Nelson discusses this confusing headline in today's News & Observer. I reacted to the headline the same way Pam did: I read "lead" as a verb, not a noun. "Fear" has a similar ambiguity.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:30 PM | Permalink | 2 comments